The U.S. chlor-alkali industry is feeling the hit from a Nov. 29 ruling of the Brazil Supreme Federal Court that bans the mining, use, and commercialization of asbestos in Brazil. About 95% of the asbestos used in the U.S. in 2016 was imported from Brazil, with the rest coming from Russia. The chlor-alkali industry used nearly all of the material, or about 340 metric tons, according to estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Much of the U.S. chlor-alkali industry still uses asbestos diaphragms to produce chlorine. The industry is phasing out such diaphragms and replacing them with more expensive ion-exchange membranes as has been done in Europe to replace mercury cells (see page 12), but not all companies have made the switch.
Some members of Congress are raising concerns about having Russia as the sole supplier of asbestos to the U.S. By continuing to allow industrial use of asbestos, a known carcinogen, the Environmental Protection Agency “is protecting Russian mining at the expense of American workers,” Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) said during a Dec. 7 subcommittee hearing of the House of Representatives Energy & Commerce Committee. Pallone and other Democrats are urging EPA to use its new authorities under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act to ban the use of asbestos in the U.S.
EPA announced in June that it would evaluate asbestos manufacturing, processing, and distribution as part of an upcoming risk assessment. Pallone asked EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt why the agency is not also considering the use and disposal of the mineral.
“The use and disposal of asbestos is the main source of risk from asbestos,” Pallone said. “If you ignore those things, you will produce a risk assessment that fails to capture the risks to workers and ordinary Americans and, in my opinion, will not be scientifically valid and will not be protective of public health.” Pruitt agreed, saying disposal of asbestos is a “very important factor that we need to consider.”
The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO), an advocacy group, welcomes the Brazil court ruling. “This decision sounds a clarion call reaffirming there is no safe or controlled use of asbestos,” says ADAO cofounder Linda Reinstein.